"I t’s sad to say but true: I leave work as late as possible. It’s not that I don’t want to see my kids — I do. But as soon as I walk in the door, my wife starts barking orders at me: ‘Grab the baby, feed this kid, do homework with that one.…’ I know there’s a lot to do and it isn’t fair to let it all fall on her, but I don’t like coming home. It feels like boot camp.”

What’s wrong with this man?! These are his children and, yes, they need to be taken care of, and, no, this job doesn’t only belong to his wife. He doesn’t enjoy it? Well, guess what? Neither does she, but she doesn’t drive off to exercise class at bedtime — she sticks around to do what needs to be done! And when he shows up late (because he’s been taking his sweet time getting home), she lets him know how unhappy she is.

“Yes, she lets me know I’m letting her down, she’s working so hard, she’s the responsible one, and I’m the loser and on and on and on. So then I take even longer coming home.”

When Negativity Oversteps

No one likes to be corrected or directed. Even when they need to be corrected or directed, they don’t like it. That’s why all forms of correction (criticism, complaints, lectures, negative feedback) and direction (instructions, requests, commands) are counted in the 20 percent of the 80/20 Rule for parenting (90/10 for teens) and the 5 percent of the marital 95/5 Rule. The good-feeling communications from parent to child or from spouse to spouse comprise the bulk of their interactions. They build and maintain positive relationships. The unpleasant-feeling communications are necessary for task setting, boundary setting, and education. In small doses, they are harmless to the relationship.

The problem is when the negative communication starts to creep over its limited boundaries. This often happens when parents deal with a particularly challenging child or with spouses. We can understand why parents end up offering more correction to their challenging child, but it’s not so clear why spouses start having so many negatives communications with each other.

“When we first got married, my husband was so loving. But as time went on, he became more and more bossy. He started giving me tons of unsolicited advice. I’m an adult; I don’t need someone telling me how to do everything. Now we fight a lot about what I call his ‘bossiness’ and what he calls my ‘impulsiveness.’ ”

At some point, spouses start to relax with each other. They stop being so careful and start speaking “naturally.” When they want something, they don’t bother with a sweet introduction anymore — they just dive right in and demand it. When something bothers them, they just say so. They start feeling entitled to say whatever they want in whatever way they want. This doesn’t work so well.

Are You That Spouse?

Ending courtship behavior often ends marital happiness. Think about your own behavior. Do your actions make your partner want to be home with you? Or are you the one who barks out orders or offers endless “unsolicited advice”? When you want your partner’s help, do you ask nicely and praise generously, or is that a waste of your time? Do you ever hold back the urge to comment because you recognize that different people do things differently, and that’s okay (even when your ideas are much better)?

It’s usually hard to see ourselves objectively. The man who stays away longer and longer because he doesn’t like to be criticized for coming home late is ruining his marriage. He can’t see how his abandonment leads to his wife’s negativity. His wife cannot see how her negativity leads to his abandonment. One spouse may be “wronger” than the other, but either has power to influence their destructive cycle.

Change Starts with You

You always have the power to change your marital dynamic: You don’t need to wait for your partner to wake up. Usually, the spouse who takes steps to heal a troublesome dynamic is not the one who’s wrong — it’s the one who’s smart. Making a positive change when you can doesn’t guarantee that your spouse will improve (since your spouse may have mental health issues or other problems), but it does have a high chance of initiating improvement in both your spouse and your marriage. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 568)